In the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., there are many significant works of art. One of the most striking is the massive sculpture that covers the wall under the choir loft. In the sculpture, people are shown from various walks of life, social classes and ethnic origins, all being drawn toward the Holy Spirit.
Entitled “The Universal Call to Holiness,” it is meant to illustrate an important truth expressed in the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium: “All Christians in any state of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered in earthly society.”
For a very long time, we Catholics in the United States were raised to keep our faith to ourselves in order to get ahead in a society marked by anti-Catholic bigotry. After the upheavals of the 1960s, there was a short lull because it was thought that the Church was ready to become “mainstream” by abandoning many of her teachings on faith and morals.
Anti-Catholicism has now returned with a vengeance, in large part because the Church remains steadfast regarding the right to life and the God-given meaning of human sexuality and marriage, not to mention other questions of social justice like the just and merciful treatment of immigrants and of the poor.
Nowhere is this bigotry more evident than in the offensive questioning recently by two U.S. senators of a Catholic judicial nominee. Though Article VI of the U.S. Constitution (which the senators are sworn to uphold) clearly states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the United States,” one senator asked, “Do you consider yourself to be an orthodox Catholic?” and the other, in a phrase worthy of Darth Vader, said, “The dogma lives loudly within you.” These words were directed at a nominee who is known to have published an academic paper which concluded that judges “cannot, nor should they try to, align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching when the two diverge.” It is also sad to note that the media reported that “conservatives” were troubled by this line of questioning. Shouldn’t all Americans be troubled?
In the face of this hostility, there are many who argue that the call to holiness — including fundamental questions of justice based on right and wrong — has little or nothing to do with a Catholic’s daily life in the world. We should just mind our own business, they argue, and keep our beliefs on these matters to ourselves behind the closed doors of private devotion, personal virtue and religious exercises.
Yet when scoffers look back over 2,000 years to discredit the Christian faith, isn’t it precisely the historical failures of Christians both to denounce and renounce public injustices and evils in society that bolster the false claim that Christianity is either a failure or a fraud?
The Second Vatican Council clearly taught that holiness, as a call to the “perfection of love,” is meant to foster “a more human manner of life … in earthly society.” The pursuit of holiness involves not only “the evangelization and sanctification” of human beings individually, but also a “transformation and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel.” (cf. Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 2)
May we take to heart Our Lord’s words in the Gospel of Matthew, addressed to each of us individually and to all of us collectively as members of his Church: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lamp-stand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Heavenly Father.” (5:13-16)
Heeding our “universal call to holiness,” may each of us strive by God’s grace to be salt and light for today’s America, even in the face of opposition, discrimination and belittlement. Then we will have no cause for shame when we are asked to give an account of what we did, or failed to do, to light up the world with Christ and to season the world with the love of God and neighbor.